It is a weekday; Madeline is working. So the boys and I walk around the corner to pristine, elegant Cadogan Square, with its matched-set facades of red brick presiding over the leafy park. We take quiet residential streets and poke down their serene mews to look at their neat little houses, more matched sets. We pass the painfully chic furnishing shops in Walton Street, and the tight clusters of inviting-looking restaurants that span the standard world-capital repertoire: the spare sushi temples, the cozy French cafes, the hyper-modern contemporary Italian trattorias. We emerge onto the broad panorama of Cromwell Road with the Victoria & Albert spread out on the right, and the Natural History Museum in front of the Science Museum on the left. We were at Science yesterday; this morning, the boys and I see the dinosaur fossils and stuffed birds of Natural History, not terribly different from the New York version.
After lunch we take the Tube to Notting Hill Gate, near the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens, to visit the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which is anchored around a pirate ship, just like the central playground in Luxembourg. It is cool and windy and damp, occasionally drizzling; the cappuccino from the in-park cafe doesn't succeed in warming me up. We return Underground to Oxford Circus, then fight our way down Regent Street to Hamley's. Six stories of toys. Filled with salespeople whose job it is to demonstrate toys. One of them gets down onto the floor with Sam and Alex and an intimidating Star Wars vehicle. He explains that it's his JOB to play with toys ALL DAY. The boys are awed. Alex admits to me that he's afraid such a job would be too hard for him. "Because I'd want to take breaks," he explains, "so I could watch TV."
Then it's pouring. We dodge the damp pedestrian traffic and the terrifying vehicular traffic--too fast, and always coming from the wrong direction--down to Piccadilly Circus, for the subway back to Sloane Square and a huge-suite respite. Then at dusk we set out through the leafy streets of Chelsea. Each block varies the theme of restrained upscalery, modestly proportioned, in contrast to the immodest mansions on the other side of the hotel, in Belgravia. Everything in this city seems to come in matched sets. The Chelsea one looks like an idealized version of middle-class living, requiring upper-class income.
It is lightly drizzling now, maybe misting (do the English have dozens of words for rain, like Eskimos do for snow?) and streetlamps are lit, and half the vehicles seem to be taxis; it looks and feels very London to me. When we come out of Whiteheads Grove onto the semi-commercial Cale Street, I spot what I hope is our restaurant. There's a type of light--warm, glowing, soft--that seeps through the large windows of restaurants that I want to be in, and that's what's coming from the plate glass across the street. An attractive foursome of not-too-well-dressed people is hurrying in, out of the damp, the door held by a smiling hostess. Yes, I see the sign, this is Tom's Kitchen. Yes, I can see already, this is a place I want to be. Subway-tile walls, and tables that are slabs of warm wood, and soft linens, and that amber lighting, and a limitless number of staff who seem to be bringing things to us. And they're all speaking English.
This is my first visit to London. It surprises my friends, especially those from London, that I've never before been here. When I lived in New York (I say that as if it was brief and long ago, don't I? It was 40 years, until last), it didn't seem worth the effort and expense and expenditure of vacation days to cross the Atlantic just to visit another expensive cosmopolitan city where everyone spoke English and rode the subway, and it was cold half the year. I already had that. I wanted French, or a wintertime beach, or whatever--I wanted different.
Now, though? Now, I live different. Now, I want exactly what I didn't want from New York. I want a subway ride from one bustling neighborhood to another. I want crowded streets filled with conversations I can easily eavesdrop. I want chic shops with no communication barriers. I want Chinatown and hail-able taxis and a whiff--just a faint one, please--of street crime. I want the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what to expect, even though I've never seen it before. What I want is a different version of New York.
I love London.